Classical Hits

14 September 2018, Napier Municipal Theatre
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich; Andrew Joyce, cello.
Schubert “Unfinished” Symphony No 8 in B minor; 
Variations on a Rococo Theme Op.33 and Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, by Tchaikovsky;
Turanga-nui by Gillian Whitehead; 
Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un faune, by Debussy. 
Review by Louis Pierard

Given its broad appeal it was surprising that this programme of “lovable” music (God deliver us from the legion of marketers) didn’t draw a larger audience. The sixth of 11 concerts nationwide, the evening included items of considerable interest and accessibility, as well as a fair bit of mystery.

Schubert’s two-movement Unfinished Symphony will forever be a conundrum.  Why was it started and set aside six years before Schubert’s death, with a piano sketch of an unremarkable third-movement Scherzo found with the original manuscript? Was it overlooked? Did he give up on it? Was he too ill? Regardless, what remains is a striking if cryptic memorial that tantalisingly reveals Schubert’s developing genius, and it continues to delight and astound. A complete a piece of music as it might ever be, it succeeds in rendering pointless subsequent efforts by others to “complete” its composition. McKeich and the NZSO skillfully revealed the work’s dark, turbulent nature that at times anticipates Mahler.

The Variations Op.33,  considered to be the cello concerto that Tchaikovsky never wrote, was commissioned in 1877 by the composer’s colleague and fellow professor Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, who, to Tchaikovsky’s dismay decided to “cello it up”, publishing it sliced and diced, with even the final variation omitted.  The result is a virtuoso showpiece, of less musical interest than as a chance to hear a master player take the cello out for a spin, and principal NZSO cellist Andrew Rose received deservedly warm applause for his technical skill punctuating the work’s lyricism with magnificent cadenzas, double stops and trills.

Gillian Whitehead’s brief Turanga-nui, the first of a series of her pieces commissioned by the NZSO, is an account of Captain Cook’s 1769 landfall in Poverty Bay. The work, receiving its premier this concert tour, conveys the shared anticipation, tension and regret of two uncomprehending cultures against a backdrop of atmospheric coastal sounds.  The significance and heft of this innovative sestercentennial delight risked being overlooked, sandwiched between the bravura Variations and the famously sensual Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un faune, with its evocative signature flute introduction.

It is a testament to the dependable quality of the NZSO that it can so effortlessly and engagingly realise the dreamlike, unfulfilled desire of the Prelude along with the jarring violence of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture that immediately followed.

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